Sunnyside… our garden of Eden

Austin’s Tale Part 1 of 5

Farm near Dallas, SD, 1936; 20 miles S.E. of Winner, SD.

Credit: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo
Farm near Dallas, SD, 1936; 20 miles S.E. of Winner, SD.

But there was no serpent lurking in the trees, only beautiful apples. Mind you, we did see a few snakes thereabout, but they were up in the hills north of the green valley that stretched from Yakima to Pasco.

We came here in 1941 from Tensed, Idaho. We had motored across sagebrush wastes and down lava slopes into a wonderland of plenty, eyes popping in delight and amazement at hop yards and orchards.

Idaho had cradled us for five years, while we picked ourselves up and brushed off the dust of the Great Depression.

Harold, the oldest of the nine of us (by birth order, it was Harold, Ray, Genevieve, Dorothy, George, Frank, Ernie, Velma and Robert) graduated from nearby Plummer High School there.

For the rest of us, it was Yakima Valley schools—Mabton (Ray was valedictorian) and Sunnyside High, or Marquette High School, and St. Joseph’s Academy in Yakima.

Austin, our dad, and Lillian (Wagner) Johnson had renewed themselves in rain-blessed Idaho after giving up under the onslaught of dust-storms, grasshopper plagues, hail storms and searing droughts that blasted large expanses of southern South Dakota.

Dorothy, my middle sister, was 10 years old when the farm auction was held that ended our life on the Dakota Plains near the town of Winner.

She recalls mother Lillian breaking down when she witnessed her prized wood-stove sell to a stranger at the rap of the auctioneer’s hammer.

That hammer blow was the sound of finality. Life on the Plains was over.

Austin ventured ahead to Idaho in 1937 at the invitation of his Uncle, Alva Smith, who had preceded him.

Lillian and her brood of eight joined Austin five months later, after navigating perilous Rocky Mountain passes jammed into two old autos that groaned under the strain.

Austin had secured work as the foreman of a dairy farm operated by the Sisters of Providence on the lands of the Coeur d’Alene Native Americans.

The only child born there was Robert, all the others having been born back on the Plains near Winner.

But the rapidly growing needs of a family of eleven — food, shelter, clothing (brother Harold was now over 6-feet tall)—forced a search for a better livelihood.

Mother Lillian got word of the bountiful hop harvest near Sunnyside through an advertisement in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane.

So, we loaded the ’38 Chev and off we went.

Robert Johnson, a former Sunnyside resident, has written a book about his father, entitled Austin in the Great War.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles to be published each Monday through Nov. 5 as a tribute to veterans and leading up to Armistice Day, Nov. 11.


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